There’s an adage in film: Don’t use babies or dogs. Because babies and dogs don’t know they’re acting, they have no inhibitions in front of the camera. A truly uninhibited force on stage or on screen can break your production’s reality because the audience realizes by contrast that everyone else is just acting.
After seeing the play Power of Sail at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, I believe that adage should be updated: Don’t use babies, dogs, or Bryan Cranston.
Power of Sail tackles an immediate topic with urgency. Loosely based on the UC Berkeley controversy, where students thwarted an attempted speech by right-wing bigot Milo Yiannopoulos, the play drops us into the whirlwind of controversy surrounding a Harvard professor played by Bryan Cranston.
The professor runs a famous lecture series on campus and has decided to invite an open and influential Neo-Nazi for the purpose of debating him and bringing his hate speech into the light. The student body is vehemently opposed, but he is steadfast. “Free speech is a disinfectant to hate” is his motto. As the story progresses, we realize that his intentions are not necessarily that noble. And toward the play’s endgame, we discover that almost none of the characters are un-compromised.
The play’s structure is interesting. For most of its runtime, we are attached to Bryan Cranston’s increasingly desperate professor. Then, in a bold move, the play takes us through the perspectives of other characters in a time jump.
I will admit, I saw some of the twists coming. But there is one towards the end that will infuriate audiences in a good way. Many times, Power of Sail will signpost you in one direction, then take you in another.
I watched a Sunday matinee of this show with an older audience. During a discussion of whether bringing this speaker to campus is the right thing to do, the audience laughed and chuckled at every cheap jab made at “safe spaces” and being “triggered”. Yet later on, the play reversed these laughs and made you feel, as an audience member, morally compromised for having had that reaction. While it’s cheap and easy to make fun of safe spaces, its opponents are advocating for a world with only one type of free speech, with only one group in power. So while audiences may find the morally outraged vigor of the youth to be annoying and twee, Power of Sail shows you that the consequences of not listening to them are substantial.
There’s a philosophical problem that works like Power of Sail have to contend with. The play’s themes include racism, the difficulty that people of color have in academic institutions, and how older white people in power can tend to negate the opinions of minorities and the youth. It’s difficult when these themes are entirely centered around a white male college professor. I have a similar problem with literary novels written by college professors about college professors. It’s navel-gazing at times, and it might not reflect the voices that need to be heard.
The famous novel Disgraced by South African author J.M. Coetzee has similar issues. It’s centered on a professor who sleeps with a student (practically a sub-genre in itself) in a South Africa that is increasingly becoming run by its black population, lamenting the changes he sees in his country. Power of Sail is more interesting and thought-provoking than that, placing a lot of characters in a morally-compromised light and aware enough to mention its privilege. However, the main character is still an academic white man with power lamenting the changes that are going on around him.
That’s why the man playing our central character is so important.
The Geffen Playhouse puts on a beautiful production. The entire set is a single, rotating stage that changes locations as it rotates. The cast is immaculate, save for some tricky work involving the plot, mentioned above. But the reason I so strongly recommend this play is Bryan Cranston.
I’ve been watching Cranston for most of my life. He was as much a part of my childhood as he has been in my adulthood. Widely regarded as the best television actor of his generation, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t regarded as one of the best theater actors of his generation after this performance.
When you think of a great theatrical performance, you might imagine Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando screaming “Stella!”, big bombastic monologues with huge characterizations. Cranston takes a role that could have been oversized and makes it real, textured, and human. I never for a moment watched Cranston’s performance and thought, “This is a person acting.” I thought that this was a college professor in over his head wandering out of a lecture hall and into his office. He reminded me of college professors who are well-meaning and kindly but ultimately deeply selfish because they’ve only seen the world from their point of view. He does it with such accuracy that it’s concerning. He has a paternalist aura to him that simultaneously feels warm and condescending. And it’s incredible that he’s able to pull off both.
There is not a moment wasted, not a moment that he doesn’t milk for everything it’s worth. All this in a stacked cast that includes Amy Brennaman and Brandon Scott. This is a production that rises to the quality of its writing in every respect.
But as with dogs or babies, the moment Bryan Cranston comes onstage, it becomes very difficult to look at anything else.
Power of Sail runs through March 27, 2022 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.